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Unpacking Trauma: It's More Common Than You Think

Trauma is a word that often conjures images of catastrophic events, war zones, or harrowing experiences. However, trauma is not limited to these extreme scenarios. It's a spectrum of experiences that can affect anyone, regardless of their background or circumstances. Read to learn more about trauma and its potential impact.

Trauma is the emotional and psychological response to a distressing or disturbing event. It can manifest in various ways, affecting individuals differently. While many associate trauma with severe experiences like accidents, assaults, or natural disasters, it's essential to understand that trauma exists on a spectrum. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, both big and small, that can have a lasting impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Most people don't even realize they have experienced trauma in their life.

Trauma can come from a variety of experiences, and can happen to anyone at any time. Some common sources of trauma include:

  • Witnessing or experiencing violence

  • Being involved in or witnessing a serious accident

  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse

  • Assault

  • Natural disasters

  • Housing Instability

  • Food Insecurity

  • Ongoing Poverty

  • Divorce or serious break up

  • Substance use

  • Loss of a loved one, including a pet

  • Medical Event

  • Discrimination

  • War

Who is Impacted by Trauma?

Most people experience some type of trauma at some point in their lives. In fact over two-thirds of children report experiencing a minimum of one traumatic event by the time they reach the age of 16. In adults, 60% of men and 50% of women report experiencing a minimum of one trauma in their lifetime. Trauma can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Some people experience trauma at higher rates than others, such as those from historically marginalized communities.

Trauma is a common experience because we live in a world that presents many challenges in life, such as violence, poverty, and inequality. In addition, we are constantly exposed to traumatic images through media use. These factors create a hostile environment that can lead to trauma in anyone.

While trauma can be universal that doesn’t mean it should be minimized or ignored. Saying things like “everyone has trauma” can minimize the effects of trauma on those who are truly suffering. It can also make people feel like their experiences are not as important or that they are overreacting, which can be invalidating. When we invalidate or minimize the harm of trauma, it can cause some people to ignore the negative effects that could be causing them serious distress. It can also perpetuate stigma against mental health and keep people from seeking treatment. People who have experienced trauma deserve to be heard and supported.

One common misconception is that trauma only results from life-altering, catastrophic events. In reality, it can be something as seemingly ordinary as the loss of a beloved pet, the end of a long-term relationship, or a sudden change in life circumstances. These "smaller" traumas can accumulate and create lasting emotional scars that affect our daily lives and overall mental health. Trauma is a spectrum and can affect people of all backgrounds, no matter how big or small the event. There is no one type of trauma that is more or less severe than another. What matters most is how each person experiences the trauma and how they learn to cope and manage it. There are different types of trauma, which can be classified as follows:

  • Acute trauma: This is a single, traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or sexual assault.

  • Chronic trauma: This is repeated or prolonged exposure to trauma, such as child abuse or neglect.

  • Complex trauma: This is a combination of acute and chronic trauma, and it often results in significant and long-lasting mental and emotional issues.

Other types of trauma include:

  • Developmental trauma: This is trauma that occurs during childhood, such as emotional abuse, neglect, or bullying.

  • Vicarious trauma: This is trauma that is experienced by someone who is exposed to the trauma of another person, such as a therapist who works with trauma survivors.

  • Collective trauma: This is trauma that is experienced by a group of people, such as a nation or community.

  • Generational trauma: This is psychological and emotional trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next, and can be caused by war, genocide, poverty, and abuse.

Traumatic stress reactions can affect individuals, families and communities, though not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will have lasting negative effects. Traumatic stress reactions are personal, and can vary depending on a person’s support system, prior traumatic experiences, resilience, and access to treatment. Everyone responds to trauma differently. Some may experience few symptoms over a shorter period of time while others may experience extreme symptoms that never resolve. The severity of trauma symptoms can also depend on the type and duration of the trauma. Some common effects of trauma include:

  • Emotional effects:

    • Anxiety

    • Depression

    • Fear

    • Guilt

    • Irritability

    • Mood swings

    • Nightmares

    • Flashbacks

    • Avoidance of trauma-related reminders

  • Behavioral effects:

    • Substance use/misuse

    • Self-harm

    • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

    • Risky behaviors

    • Hypervigilance

    • Withdrawal from social activities

    • Inability to experience pleasure

    • Difficulty concentrating

    • Difficulty sleeping

  • Physical effects:

    • Headaches

    • Stomachaches

    • Fatigue

    • Muscle tension

    • Pain

    • Sleep problems

    • Increased heart rate and blood pressure

Trauma can have a long-term impact on a person's physical and mental health. People who experience trauma are at increased risk for developing chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. It can also lead to chronic trauma disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), and can severely impact childhood development if experienced at an early age.

When trauma goes unaddressed, it doesn't simply disappear. Instead, it lingers, often leading to a range of mental health issues. People who have experienced trauma may find themselves struggling with anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions can significantly impact their quality of life.

To manage the pain and distress caused by unaddressed trauma, individuals might turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance misuse, self-destructive behaviors, or even overworking. These coping strategies may provide temporary relief but can ultimately worsen the long-term effects of trauma.

Unaddressed trauma can also continue cycles of pain and dysfunction. For example, individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle to form healthy relationships or become overly defensive, pushing away those who care about them. This can further isolate them and increase their emotional struggles. Unresolved trauma can cause a person to feel threatened long after the incident occurs, and healing from this trauma can take a long time.

Healing from Trauma

There is no one right way to heal from trauma. It’s important to remember that trauma is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. If you have experienced trauma, you are not alone. There is help available. A therapist can help you understand your trauma and develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage your symptoms. There are many forms of therapy that are specific to trauma treatment that can be useful:

The best type of trauma treatment for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences.

If you know someone who has experienced trauma, it’s important to be patient and understanding. Healing from trauma takes time and can be a long and difficult process. Here are some ways to support someone who has experienced trauma:

  • Listen without judgment

  • Let them know you believe in them

  • Offer support and encouragement

  • Help them find resources and professional support if they need it

  • Respect their boundaries

  • Check-in with them every so often to see how they’re managing

It’s also important to be aware of your own triggers and take care of yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a break from the conversation and seek support from a friend, family member or mental health professional.

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